Recently, the British royal wedding made international front-page news. It was globally portrayed as an auspicious occasion for the world to remember; much like a well-written fairy-tale. The outcome was record-breaking: the Westminster Abbey event attracted the eyes of millions of people from around the globe. Personally, I have too many more immediate concerns to care about the royal wedding. However, my lack of interest or the fact that I live in Iran didn’t allow me to escape snippets about ‘the extraordinary palace reception’, ‘the locally grown food’, ‘the secrets of Kate’s hairdo’, ‘the pomp and pageantry’, ‘the after-event private party’ and, of course, that ‘balcony kiss.’
Readers outside Iran may be surprised to hear that the British royal wedding was as much a media event in this country as anywhere else in the world. In particular, Iranians applauded the way how gently and appropriately Kate Middleton dressed and used facial make-up (see, for example, here). As so often, when global media events get adapted locally, this applause has in fact nothing much to do with the British royals but everything with Iranian women. Praising Kate’s modesty and demureness has become a way to implicitly criticize Iranian women for their lack of modesty and demureness, for their provocative dresses and their gaudy make-up.
Until I lived in Australia and experienced life in the so-called “West,” I might actually have agreed with this view of Iranian women mediated through an interpretation of British royal femininity along the lines “If an icon of Western femininity can dress so appropriately, why can’t Iranian women?!” “Kate’s simple dress and gentle make-up are a great role model for Iranian women.”
However, after my time in Australia I see the representation of Kate Middleton as a role model for Iranian women a bit differently and consider it a myopic cultural generalization aimed at humiliating Iranian women and make them toe the line of virtuous femininity. When I was in Sydney, for example, my house was across from Curzon Hall, a sandstone manor set in two magnificent gardens. It is a luxurious venue hosting, inter alia, formals and weddings. Weather permitting, parts of the celebrations would be held in the un-walled gardens and not in the main castle. Accordingly, I was a regular, even if accidental, spectator of the events unfolding in the gardens. The scenes or people I witnessed stand in stark contrast to ways Western weddings are nowadays depicted by some Iranian media. In these weddings the guests naturally comprised a variety of individuals. As far as female dress-codes were concerned, I observed some modestly dressed women, and many not-so-modestly dressed ones. In fact, I saw an abundance of artificially tanned skins and low-cut dresses.
It is axiomatic that the great majority of Iranians are Muslims and are thus expected to dress in accordance with Islamic doctrine. However, extolling the virtues of modest female dress codes through generalizing (incorrectly!) from the wedding dress of a British royal to all Western women and then recontextualizing it as a ‘fact’ to blast a large group of people in another country is the last approach any discerning mind would advise even if it is done with the best intentions.
From the 15th to the 20th century the Orient was described in terms of the ways it differed from the West. Colonised countries were denigrated and produced as a negative image, an ‘other.’ The production of a positive, civilised image of British society and its inverse – the negative, uncivilised orient – was a way to justify colonial relationship between “the west and the rest”. What is discomforting today is, however, not orientalism emanating from the West but from within Iranian society: a kind of self-orientalism that has the aim not to justify a neo-colonial relationship but a patriarchal one. If the British have already done this to us, why are we doing it to ourselves?